Arima was a city in ruins, thanks to the handiwork of a terrorist organization everyone referred to as the Scoundrels. The group had left nothing of value standing in the city, aside from the few buildings impervious to natural and man-made disasters, such as the hospital, the data center, and thankfully for the thriving mercenary business, Arima's weapons shop. The shop was run by a military veteran the locals knew only as Roni, who understood that a gun shop had to be built like an armory. Its vault-like structure meant that Roni could continue to outfit legal hunters and guardians during the worst of crises.
Besides, if any terrorists dared to set foot in her shop, Roni would blow their heads off with her favorite plasma cannon.
Rudolf Steiner was a frequent customer at Arima's weapons store. He was a veteran like Roni, having retired from active duty over two years earlier after his wife and son were killed during one of the first biomonster outbreaks. He hadn't planned on spending retirement as a bounty hunter, but the world seemed to need his services, now that it was overrun with unnatural, murderous beasts and terrorist groups like the Scoundrels.
It was a hot afternoon, with the smell of burning metal, plastic, and garbage polluting the air, when Rudo crossed a deserted street and entered Roni's shop, equipped in his heaviest armor and carrying one of Motavia's finest shotguns. Rudo was among Roni's favorite customers, as much for the sheer amount of meseta he spent in her store as it was for the time they bonded over similar experiences that had shaped their lives. Rudo was banking on his good rapport with Roni to buy an item not normally available to civilians, but for all Roni hated the tight control of the Mother Brain network, she was still bound by the law.
"Listen, Dolfie," Roni said to Rudo, "you know that if I say explosives have been banned for civilian use, I'm not lying. You're probably the only person I don't lie to."
Rudo grumbled. "I know, I know. That's my luck, too. Another ban just in time for me to need explosives."
"Doll, I would love nothing more than to sell you what I have left, really," Roni said in her raspy voice as she flipped some of her wild, flame-orange hair behind her shoulder and leaned suggestively into the counter. "Normally I wouldn't even give a damn what that piece of shit computer has banned, but Arima is under a microscope right now, thanks to those idiotic Scoundrels. I'm just waiting for the military or bootlicker guardians to confiscate what I have back there." She stuck out a thumb in the direction of the shop's storage vault.
Rudo thought for a moment, scratching his chin. He leaned his elbows into the counter and got eye-level with Roni. He threw on all the rugged charm he could muster.
"All right, then. What if I tell you it's for a good cause? To rescue a little girl?"
"Aw, Dolfie, it's always for a good cause. In the two years I've known you, you've only taken the jobs involving so-and-so's kid or so-and-so's dear granny, the stuff no one else picks up because the families don't have much meseta to spare for the work. Twice the risk for half the pay! That pension of yours must be pretty sweet. Maybe you'll share it with me?" She leaned forward a bit more, showing some cleavage in the process.
"My money already has a habit of disappearing in this shop! But if it means getting my hands on some explosives..." Rudo raised his eyebrows.
"Tempting, but no."
The two weapons experts were known to flirt with each other, though neither was ever serious about it. Roni thought it was good for business and Rudo thought it got him some bargains; both were right. Today, though, Rudo wasn't getting anywhere with the usual playful banter. He had one final trick up his sleeve, literally.
Rudo pushed up the sleeve of his black uniform to reveal a pouch velcroed around his forearm. He took it off and opened it, setting a red money card on the counter. He pushed it toward Roni. "All yours. You know how much the red ones are."
She stared at the card and put a finger on it, sliding it back and forth across the counter. She let out a long whistle and shook her head. "Twelve thousand, huh?" She picked it up and played with it in her hand, then shot Rudo a wicked grin. "Y'know, it's pretty dangerous letting me hold this thing. I might just decide to keep it, hide it on me and leave it up to you to find it."
"Cute," Rudo said with a smirk. "It's not going to get me what I want, is it?"
Roni sighed and handed him his card back provocatively between her index and middle fingers. "Sorry, Dollface. Why d'ya need explosives to save a kid for, anyway? Sounds dangerous."
"Isn't it always?"
"I meant for the girl." She groaned and cocked her hips to one side. "You sure this is a good idea?"
"No, but unless you have a master key to Nido, it's my only option."
"Nido? You're breaking into an agritech building? That's not like you!"
"Roni," Rudo said, "due respect and all that, but if there's ever a time to be above the law, this is it." There was a weight in his voice that seemed to activate a switch in Roni.
"The Scoundrels. That girl, Teim... something. They're keeping her there, right? I get it now. I won't breathe a word of this, of course."
"I know," he said. "Now, about the expl-"
Just then the front door chimed, indicating company had arrived. Rudo turned around to see a government agent and a human-like creature that looked eerily familiar enter the shop. Now that there was an agent in the shop, there was a zero percent chance of getting explosives from Roni. Rudo would have to come back later, or find less legal means of getting what he needed.
Rudo turned back to Roni and shook his head. She gave him a weary smile and a friendly pat on the upper arm.
"Sorry, Dollface. Who would've guessed an agent, huh? Don't they do sissy stuff like investigate fraud?"
Rudo chuckled. "You're not making bogus insurance claims, are you?"
"All right, you got me," she joked back, punching him lightly in the shoulder. "Now scram. Looks like I'm going to have to grab my books and get down to business with this guy. Though, what's with the elf girl?" Roni glared at the teenager accompanying the agent.
"Don't know, but good luck, have fun, and so on." He picked up his shotgun by the sling. Before leaving, he leaned toward Roni and murmured, "Meanwhile I'll be knocking on Fulvio's door and asking to borrow a cup of nitroglycerin."
Roni sighed heavily. "Just be careful, okay? Fulvio's on every guardian watchlist, ya know?" She reached under the counter and pulled out a computer pad and a tag reader, ready to show the agent her inventory and accounting.
Rudo turned around and put his hand up in a halfhearted farewell. He glanced at the agent and his odd companion on the way out and finally remembered why the girl looked familiar. He had met someone similar a little over seven months ago, only the girl he had encountered was much younger, probably around eight years old. With all the crazy things happening in the world lately, Rudo wondered if this second encounter might hold any significance. In any event, the two visitors to Roni's shop looked ill-prepared for a world full of biohazards.
"While you're here," he said, looking into the girl's striking red eyes, "make sure he gets something better than those knives, huh?" Rudo winked and pointed to the only weapons—two simple hunting knives—hanging from the agent's utility belt.
Rolf looked back, startled that the hunter was talking to them. Nei looked even more surprised, however. She reached into the glove of one of her claws and pulled out a small charm. Rolf had never seen it before.
"Rolf!" Nei exclaimed, tugging on his shirt. "I know that guy!"
Rolf was a bit embarrassed by the hunter's comment about his choice of weapons. "Really? Is he always that blunt?"
"He's a good hunter, I swear! He gave me this." She showed him the charm that was hanging around a necklace chain.
"When did this happen? You never told me about this."
"I guess I never really thought about it until now. I met him right before you rescued me, and everything before I met you is kind of a blur to me."
"I understand," Rolf said, rustling Nei's hair. "Things haven't exactly been easy for you."
The pair stood in silence for a few seconds. Finally, Nei looked as if she were about to say something. She had a wild twinkle in her eyes Rolf was very familiar with.
"Nei?" he asked. "What's going-"
Before Rolf could finish, Nei darted out the door.
Rolf rolled his eyes. "Not again!" He groaned as he put his hand out to catch the door as it slid shut. He turned to the shop owner and told her they'd be back in a little while.
"Sure thing," Roni replied. "Later, Ace!"
Rolf stepped outside and saw that Nei had already caught up with the hunter and was showing him her necklace. Specks of white light reflected off the shiny silver charm in the shape of a bullet as Nei let it dangle from its chain. Rolf watched as the hunter, stunned, took the necklace in his hand. He made a gesture toward Nei, and Nei nodded back to him, pointing at herself. As Rolf got closer to the pair of acquaintances, the hunter turned to him and shrugged his shoulders.
"What kind of creature is she, anyway? You know, the last time I saw her, she was... well she looked like she was less than ten years old, but who knows."
Rolf scowled. "Could you not call Nei a creature? She's right there and understands Palman."
"Oh, I don't mind," said Nei, smiling. "This is Rudolf, by the way." She turned to Rudo again and took her necklace back.
"Rudolf Steiner, or just Rudo is fine," he greeted Rolf with an outstretched hand. "Palman Army, retired, hunter and general do-gooder by day."
Rolf shook Rudo's hand but gave him a cold stare. "Agent Rolf Landale, Central Command."
"So you're... partners with Nei or something? I can't keep up with what the government is doing anymore," Rudo said.
Rolf had no interest in talking with Rudo. He had come to Arima for a weapons boost, a quick visit to the medical clinic, and maybe press a few locals for information about the rogue hunter currently holding up traffic on the north bridge, Darum, and his kidnapped daughter, Teim. It was almost high noon and with Arima's climate control systems having been downed by the invading scoundrels, the city was positively stifling. The longer Rolf stood outside the shop, the more he felt like he would melt into the cracked pavement. Rolf wanted to get out of the ghastly city as soon as possible.
"She's not my partner, but she's allowed to accompany me while I'm on official duty. Which, by the way, I need to get back to. Come on, Nei," Rolf said as he reached for her arm.
Nei quickly dodged his grasp. "Hey, wait a minute!"
Rolf was becoming visibly agitated. "We don't have time to-"
"I think Rudo can help us!" Nei interrupted.
Both men grumbled and tried not to look at each other. Rolf instead watched the frenzied activity at the teleport station, where a line wrapped around the entire building maybe three or four times. Guardians and hunters acted as interim crowd control in place of the usual patrol robots, which had all been taken out as part of the attack on Arima a few days prior to Rolf's arrival. People were attempting to leave the city, but the only way out was through the teleportation tubes, of which only two had been successfully reactivated since the attack. It was a terrible evacuation system, and the military still had not been deployed to Arima to help with the process.
Suddenly Rolf felt Nei nudging him.
"I mean it!" Nei said as she put her hands on both Rolf and Rudo. "Rolf, tell him what we're doing."
"Nei! Seriously, we're done here. You know I can't tell him-"
"I don't care!" Nei turned to Rudo. "We're rescuing Darum's daughter, Teim. It's the only way to stop Darum!"
Rolf was so taken aback he couldn't speak.
"You're insane, Agent Landale!" Rudo exclaimed. "You expect to get into Nido with a pair of knives?"
Rolf snapped out of his stupor. "Wait, what are you talking about? The Scoundrels aren't in Nido."
"Seems I have better intell than the government, then," Rudo said, crossing his arms.
"You think Teim's in Nido?" Rolf asked.
Rudo said nothing but continued to stare at the Rolf. After a few moments he finally said, "I think I've told you enough."
"No kidding," Rolf retaliated, taking Nei by the arm and turning back to the weapons shop.
"Stop! Stop it right now!" Nei yelled, breaking away from Rolf and giving Rudo a look of desperation. "Rudo, please help us. The Scoundrels haven't been active for two days now. Central Command thinks they're dead."
"Nei!" Rolf shouted.
Rudo shifted his gaze back to Rolf. "Dead? How would they know?"
Rolf looked like he was ready to explode. "If you think-"
"One of the scoundrels is a tree," Nei said.
Rolf groaned and put his head in his hands.
"A... tree?" Rudo asked.
Rolf sighed. "Plant. Nei means a plant. You might as well know that since Nei has no discretion." He glared at Nei.
"You'll thank me later," she said, then stuck out her tongue. Rolf just shook his head.
"If that's the case, then it's important we get to Nido right away," Rudo said. "Maybe now that you're here, we won't need explosives."
"Explo... we? What's going on here? There is no we!" Rolf exclaimed.
"Don't worry!" Nei said to Rudo. "The tree told us-"
"Plant, Nei, and would you stop talking, please?" Rolf ordered.
Rudo stepped directly in front of Rolf and looked the agent over. "Looks like we both have information that's useful to rescuing Teim. You're an agent; get us a key or explosives and I will deliver Teim to you."
"That's just it, though," said Nei. "The scoundrels have explosives. In Shure!"
Rolf threw his hands up. "Why did I even bother to bring you along?"
"Someone within the Scoundrels must have suspected your 'tree,' since he was unaware Teim is actually in Nido," Rudo said. "So there are explosives in Shure? All right, but how are we getting into Shure?"
"There is... no... we!"
"Oh, there's a 'we,' kid, and there's no way you're leading us until you get some firepower."
Rolf looked up and wailed at the bright, noonday sky. "Why? Why? Wasn't there anyone else Commander O'Conner could have sent on this mission?" His voice trailed off into a long, frustrated moan. He stood there, defeated, half wishing lightning would strike him.
Rudo and Nei were already making their way back to the weapons shop. Rolf could hear Nei blabbing all the details of his mission to Rudo. Rudo listened intently to all her talking, and nodded his head as Nei went on.
"Rolf said biomonsters breached Shure and cornered the scoundrels on the upper floor. That's the last we heard from the tree guy. Anyone can walk right into Shure now, but it's crawling with biomonsters! We've been there! We had to come back for better weapons."
"Smart move," Rudo said.
"Oh! You know what Rolf is really good with? Swords! He used to be in some kind of swordy-type competitions. He has awards all over the house!"
"I bet that impresses the ladies."
"Let's get him a sword!" Nei jumped up and down.
This better be worth all the overtime and hazard pay, Rolf thought as he followed Nei and Rudo into the weapons store, gathering what was left of his sanity along the way.